“Asalaamualaikum”, the young immigration officer mumbles, as he slides into his chair. I am the first traveller at the Atari border crossing that day. The immigration counter is deserted and my elderly porter has to knock on the door behind the counter to roust the officer.
My “Walaikum Salam” has barely left my lips when the officer springs up from his chair, breaks into a wide smile, grasps my hand warmly and says, welcome to Pakistan!
His welcome sets the tone for the days that I am to spend in Pakistan. I am in Lahore to attend the Afkar-e-Taza Thinkfest, where I am to speak about my book, The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, set in the Lahore court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
My Sikh friends who have visited Pakistan have told me of the love and respect they received during their travels; yet, I am humbled by the reception I receive. Within a few hours of my arrival, I visit the Lahore Fort, which I am very eager to see as it features prominently in my book. The fort, a popular tourist site is teeming with visitors, mostly Pakistani.
I am completely unprepared for what happens next. I am mobbed like a celebrity! Every few steps, strangers come up to me with broad smiles thrusting out their hands. Many greet me in Punjabi. Sat Sri Akal Sardar Ji! I am asked to pose for countless photographs and bombarded with friendly questions. Where are you from Sardar Ji? Is this your first time in Lahore Uncle Ji? My parents came from Jalandhar! My grandparents were from Amritsar! Have you visited Kartarpur yet? Have you been to Nankana Sahib?
‘Are these the people so vilified in the country of my birth?’
I take it all in and wonder. Are these the people who are so vilified in the country of my birth?
The same evening, I visit the dargah of Baba Bulleh Shah. There is no formal event that evening, but there is a throng of devotees who take turns singing. A man, my age, delivers a beautiful rendition of Waris Shah’s Heer. I am inspired to join them and sing a couple of kafis of Baba Bulleh Shah. A garland is placed around my neck as I sing, basking in the warmth of the congregation that nods appreciatively and occasionally interjects to proclaim the glory of their pir. I feel like I have been singing at a gurdwara.
The next morning, I visit Nankana Sahib. I am very impressed by the care that has been lavished on the gurdwara. Its surroundings have been impeccably kept and a security detail is posted outside. Most of the visitors are Muslim and exhibit great reverence when they come to the gurdwara to pay their respects. I sing a few shabads or hymns from Guru Nanak’s writings and the visitors sit and listen in rapt attention. As I sing, from the corner of my eye, I see a man on his knees, eyes shut, hands raised in dua or prayer. Just as I am leaving, he catches up with me and tells me how much he enjoyed the singing of the hymns.
The two-day ThinkFest is a cornucopia of art, culture and ideas. Nobel laureates, diplomats and senior bureaucrats rub shoulders with writers, poets and academics. The conference is a complex undertaking, but everything runs like clockwork, in no small part because of an army of young volunteers. As I walk around the Alhamra Arts Centre, I encounter the same warmth that I experienced at the Lahore Fort. I am asked to pose for many photographs and receive invitations to speak at universities in far-flung places.
Every session I attend is brilliant, but some deserve special mention. I am enthralled by the conversation between Janaki Bhakhle and Ali Raza about Veer Savarkar and the origins of Hindutva. Supriya Gandhi’s talk about her recent book on Dara Shukoh, a figure I have encountered briefly during my research on the lives of the Sikh gurus, is most engaging. Historian Andrew Whitehead provides a fascinating account of Freda Bedi, and having been raised in Sikkim, I am intrigued by the story of her life as a Buddhist nun and the time she spent with the 16th Karmapa, a reincarnated lama who was a much-revered figure in Sikkim.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the Punjabi hospitality that was very much in evidence during my visit. Punjabis love their food and nobody loves food more than Lahoris! From the lavish feasts arranged by the organisers of the ThinkFest to the bounty of street vendors, everything I was offered in Lahore was delicious. The love and warmth of Lahore and Lahoris is of course the most important ingredient!
On my way back, as I take the few steps between Pakistan and India, I cannot help thinking of Toba Tek Singh, the title of Sadat Hasan Manto’s bitingly satirical tale of the folly of Partition.
The bonds of blood, language and culture that bind us are thousands of years old. The boundaries are only decades old. Inshallah, one day, they will be effaced.
The writer is a Boston based poet, playwright, musician and commentator.
Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2020